In the early 1900’s, huge cracks started to appear at the west end of Winchester Cathedral, with huge chunks of stone falling to the ground, the cathedral seemed in danger of complete collapse.
Early efforts to underpin its waterlogged foundations failed. Winchester lies in a valley of the River Itchen, and the Cathedral sits on peaty soil with a high underlying water table.
Thomas Jackson, an architect was brought in to help. He would deal with the problem of subsidence once and for all by underpinning the building’s medieval south and east walls with modern new foundations. Jackson planned to dig narrow trenches underneath the walls of the building and fill them with concrete. These would need to reach 4 metres (13 feet) below the water table to be effective. At first, it seemed Jackson’s plan would prove unworkable. As fast as the workmen dug, water flooded into their trenches. Even a steam pump couldn’t hold it back long enough.
It seemed nothing could be done to stop total collapse. Then the project’s engineer, Francis Fox, had a brilliant idea. If the water couldn’t be held back, why not use a deep-sea diver to do the work? So William Walker, an experienced diver working at Portsmouth dockyard, was called in.
Walker, born in Surrey in 1869, qualified as a deep-water diver in 1892. Between 1906 and 1911, working in water up to a depth of six metres, shored up the cathedral, using more than 25,800 bags of concrete, 114,900 concrete blocks, and 900,000 bricks. He worked six hours a day, 6 days a week— in complete darkness, so had to use his bare hands to feel his way through the cloudy, muddy water.
His huge, heavy diving suit took a long time to put on. So, when he stopped for lunch, he’d just take off his helmet. He also sometimes smoked his pipe, which he thought would kill off any germs.
After Walker finished his work, the groundwater was pumped out and the concrete he had placed bore the foundation walls. Conventional bricklayers then were able to do their work in the usual way and restore the damaged walls.
During the latter part of his time working at the cathedral, Walker cycled home, 70 miles to South Norwood, at weekends returning by train on the Monday.
In response to questions about his work on the cathedral, Walker said:
“It was not difficult. It was straightforward work, but had to be carefully done” and that “I am proud of the honour (of saving Winchester Cathedral)”.
Walker died during the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918 and is buried in Beckenham Cemetery, London. His grave, bears the words: “The diver who with his own hands saved Winchester Cathedral.”